The last three installments of the Sundance Film Festival have set new expectations with record-breaking deals for the hottest films. But three days into this year’s festival, there are signs that the streaming-fueled frenzy may be cooling, giving specialty distributors a chance to once again reign supreme on their home turf.
Of course, the streaming economy is what allowed National Geographic Documentary Films to announce the festival’s first major deal Sunday with its acquisition of “Fire of Love.” The first undisputed standout of Sundance so far, Sara Dosa’s doc wowed critics and buyers with its blend of spectacular footage shot by its subjects, Katia and Maurice Krafft, poetic narration from filmmaker Miranda July, and ace filmmaking craft at the hands of its director.
NatGeo will give the film a theatrical release later this year, and as a Disney organ, many of the distributor’s films end up living on Disney+. With Netflix and Amazon in the mix, “Fire of Love” suitors including Sony Pictures Classics and IFC were priced out. And even with their Netflix-competing streaming services to stock, Universal and Paramount didn’t bring bidding to record-breaking territory.
As one theatrical distribution executive pointed out, one should never underestimate a streamer’s willingness to spend big on whatever title catches its eye. Though “Fire of Love” premiered with the kind of instant streaming-hit potential as “Boys State” and “Knock Down the House,” this crowdpleaser went for a more modest sum than those earlier documentary-sale record breakers — mid-seven figures versus their $12 million and $10 million price tags, respectively.
NatGeo’s other acquisition announced Sunday — “The Territory,” Alex Pritz’ spotlight of an Indigenous community’s fight against logging in the Amazon — went for a similar sum despite a much quieter profile and less broad-based appeal.
Ahead of the festival, industry players expressed expectations that the average hot documentary should sell for more than the average buzzy narrative title. And if that’s the case, these two acquisitions have set a dealmaking tone where theatrical distributors have a fighting chance at filling their slates with other festival standouts.
Among them are “Living,” which confirmed many distributors’ early interest after it premiered Friday. Oliver Hermanus’ remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Ikiru,” swapping Tokyo for London and Takashi Shimura for Bill Nighy in the lead role. Early reviews are largely positive for the film that’s would make a strong choice for distributors looking for something that could appeal to older arthouse audiences. A strong supporting turn from Aimee Lou Wood in her first major film role offers a way in for a younger crowd introduced to her in Netflix’s “Sex Education.” And it still doesn’t hurt to think about awards prospects.
In a festival overrepresented by genre films, the earliest days of the festival saw the premiere of movies that already have distribution: “Fresh,” “After Yang,” “Speak No Evil,” and “Master.” Rebecca Hall earned early praise for “Resurrection,” which is still up for grabs after its Saturday premiere, making it a more attractive choice than “Watcher,” with its lesser-know cast led by Maika Monroe.
Standouts in another major category at this year’s festival, documentaries, are still available. “The Exiles,” “Free Chol Soo Lee,” and “We Met in Virtual Reality” have strong sales potential but could be more challenging for a streaming audience.
Another hot title to watch: “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” the sophomore feature from Cooper Raiff, who has another project lined up with Amazon after his 2020 SXSW standout “Shithouse,” which was distributed by IFC. The film was widely embraced after its Sunday afternoon premiere as a charming coming-of-age story, and seems likely to attract a distributor that wants to invest in Raiff’s rising star power.
Another well-received narrative title was the Emma Thompson chamber drama “Good Luck to You, Leo Grade,” in which the 62-year-old actress bears all as a widow who forms an unlikely bond with a young sex worker (breakout material Daryl McCormack). The last time Thompson had a well-received title at Sundance was 2019’s “Late Night,” which Amazon Studios snatched up for a robust $13 million deal only to see the film flounder in theaters months later. But the market has changed since then, and this new star-driven entry works on a much smaller scale that might attract streamers disinterested in its theatrical potential.
So why haven’t these sellable titles sold? As virtual Sundance rolls on, sales agents have made peace with the diffuse nature of the screening process: With home viewing windows that stretch on for hours, buyers aren’t all watching movies at the exact same time, so it just takes longer for every potential distributor to tune in.
Meanwhile, as the industry continues to grapple with a challenged arthouse box office and concerns about how online festival play could further impact that, there’s some good news. After Neon acquired Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” out of Cannes, a buzzy festival run delivered the Norwegian dark romantic comedy a spot on the Oscar shortlist. Two weeks ahead of its North American premiere, the online Sundance screenings sold out, suggesting there’s an audience eager to catch up on the film that’s earned raves.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.